Thoughts on life’s accomplishments
September 9, 2013
Every so often something occurs to make me reflect on what exactly I’ve accomplished in life. I don’t mean the accumulation of property or wealth (like that’s ever gonna happen), nor the acquisition of power or control (the lowest form of “success” in my books), nor even the fleeting merits of fame (which have eluded me so far). I’m talking about what I’ve done in life – as the old campground mantra goes – to leave the site better than I found it.
I question what I will leave behind that will make people smile or feel good. Could I depart this world right now knowing that I made some kind of difference for the better, however small a difference that might be?
You see, we all have it within us to do something with our lives – to contribute for the better, the worse, or to slip through life unnoticed. The choice is ours.
These days it’s all too easy to bitch and complain about life’s deficiencies, thinking that we alone have it rough. We compare ourselves to what we think others have (not what they actually have but what we think they have), and often feel like we come up short. And so we gripe that life has dealt us a bad hand. Yet all of us experience setbacks and inequities. We all suffer health issues at one time or another. We have all experienced loss, and faced defeat. In other words we all struggle to get by in one way or another. Yet some choose to conceal their challenges and show only their best side so as to not bring others down. Truth is, for each of us who feels that we deserve better, there’s always someone who envies us our good fortune.
The thing that sets us apart from the spirit killers who drag others down, are the things we do to make the world a better place. Like lifting the sagging spirits of another. Volunteering for a worthwhile cause. Reading a story or playing a game with a child. Hugging a friend or loved one, or even a perfect stranger. Saying “please” and, especially, “thank you” more often. Planting a garden or a tree. Congratulating a co-worker for a job well done. Random acts of kindness. Tossing refuse, whether ours or not, into the trash. Recycling. Smiling. Leaving a little more space between our car and the one in front of us. Little acts that make the world a cleaner and brighter place, and that make others feel better about the world around them.
Sure, I get today’s caustic sentiment of mutual social misery. Every day the news reminds us about just what a lousy place the world is. It’s an all too common lament. Why should I build when someone is just going to come along and tear it down? Why should I be courteous and nice when the people around me are grumpy and rude? Why should I hold the door open for the guy in the expensive business suit when I only have a part-time job at minimum wage? Why should I let that old Ford pull out in front of my new Lexus? Why should I contribute any of my hard-earned dollars to help the less fortunate? Because to do otherwise is to let the misery persist instead of making a small gesture to help improve things. That’s why.
We all have only a short time to make a difference. Sometimes I’m reminded of just how short that time can be. The other day I attended the funeral of a well-respected musician who clearly made a difference in the lives of the people who knew him. John Willett played trumpet and sang lead vocals for the popular 70s rock cover band Powerhouse. John was probably no saint, but judging by the throng of people who attended his memorial, he was certainly well liked and well respected. In his own unique way he left the world a better place.
John was a happy man with a smile as wide as his broad shoulders. A big man with a big voice and presence, John was a musician who could be mistaken for a biker. Yet he was not afraid to share his sensitive, loving side with his friends and family. Quite simply, John (Cruiser or Willie to his friends) made other people feel good about themselves. And that’s about the greatest thing that can be said about any of us.
Yet John’s life was cut short by cancer. Sure, one could point to this as proof that life is unfair. That it shows once again that life sucks, so why pretend otherwise. But I think John Willett would disagree. While he was here he made a joyful noise with his music and his personality, and the world today is a better place for his having done so. I think that’s a worthy legacy for anyone.
None of us knows how much time we have left to make a difference. A friend from my teen years died unexpectedly last year. Chris Syed Brown was one of the most intelligent, erudite, and thoughtful men I’ve ever known. His love of books, philosophy, science, and cultural history made an impression on me back in our teen years, at a time when we were supposed to be more interested in girls, cars, and getting into mischief.
Chris was a quiet man who spoke with a kindly, elfish giggle. I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was a good listener. You could talk to him about anything, and he would hang on your every word like he was thinking deeply about what you were saying. That’s because he was. He made you feel like your ideas and opinions were important. Do you know how it makes a teenage boy feel when someone else is truly interested in what he has to say; in the thoughts he has in his head? Well, I can tell you that it makes him feel damn good about himself, and about the person who is listening with rapt attention to his every word. Chatting with Chris about any topic could be downright therapeutic.
Chris came by his supportive nature honestly. His mother, Betty Syed, was also an interesting, and interested, person. She was a skilled crafts artisan with a sweet disposition and an inquisitive mind. Whenever my friends and I visited Chris, Betty would always take the time to sit with us and chat over a cup of tea about what was going on in our lives, about what we were currently interested in, and what we were up to today (which usually involved us constructing some home-movie set or science fair project in her basement). Like Chris, she made us feel important, interesting, relevant. She made us feel good about ourselves. Needless to say she too was a person we all enjoyed being with and talking to.
Sadly Betty died a few days after Chris. Heartbreak? Maybe. Coincidence? Possibly. But they were close in life and so it seems fitting that they were close in death too. At their funeral we celebrated their lives and the difference they made in ours. And it was not surprising to learn that so many others felt the same. Chris was a Professor, and a lot of his students drove quite a few miles to attend his memorial. Clearly he had continued throughout his life to touch the lives of others in that soft-spoken, positive way of his.
And yet, unlike his mom who left her artworks behind, Chris left us little in the way of physical evidence of his kind, thoughtful nature. Sure, he wrote a book, but it was a technical text with little of his personality reflected in its pages. As far as I can tell he left behind no artwork of his own. No music. No personal writings. And only a handful of photographs. Maybe his family knows otherwise. Yet, even though Chris may have left a small footprint, he did leave behind memories of his kind and gentle nature that we, his friends and his family, will treasure and be influenced by forever.
Okay. Enough with all the sunshine and roses. Isn’t this all just Pollyanna tripe? Am I suggesting we all naively stick our collective heads in the sand and pretend that life is beautiful? That there’s no inequity or misery out there? In short, “don’t worry, be happy”? Of course not. Shit happens. I know that. That’s life, too. But the cure for garbage is not to wallow in it. The way to handle garbage is to clean it up. It’s what we humans do so well.
As near as we can tell, animals can only deal with their world as it is – the good, the bad and the ugly. Only we humans have the ability to rise above the grimness of life. We have a gift for art, music, conversation, poetry, architecture, humour, science, and literature that allows us to elevate ourselves and others above the everyday crap. We have an altruistic instinct for compassion that enables us to share our strengths with those who are weaker. We have it within us to selflessly make others feel good about themselves. And, you know what? Like a smile, giving this positive energy away does not diminish our personal supply one iota. In fact, it often makes us feel even better. It’s a true win-win exchange.
So it’s my goal to get out there and, in my own humble way, make a joyful noise. To dance more often. To hug someone who needs it. To sing. To write uplifting songs, stories and essays. To paint. To smile, giggle, and laugh more often. To whistle or hum as I work. To lend a hand whenever I can. To listen – really listen – to others. To volunteer. To compliment someone for a job well done. To create. To thank others for their kindness. To share. To give. And to drive more courteously.
I believe we all need to do whatever it takes to make others feel good about themselves. It’s the least we can do for those around us… and for ourselves. Like John, Chris, Betty, and so many countless others, we should all be trying our best to leave the place a little better than we found it.